Now that Gettysburg hotels sell out for the July battle anniversary by December, and the Virginia peninsula might as well be rezoned as a historical theme park, it’s worth looking back to a time when plenty of American history wasn’t the stuff of vacation plans. There was no permanent monument at Yorktown until the battle’s centennial in 1881, and nearby lodging for its dedication was so sparse that visitors to the commemoration were housed in tents.
How things have changed—and this fascinating study is ideal reading for the ongoing sesquicentennial of the Civil War and bicentennial of the War of 1812. It offers a close examination of just how overgrown fields and crumbling fortresses came to be reclaimed as objects worthy of preservation and visitation.
The tale of how a protean form of the American battlefield came about has several phases, some relating directly to a sheer drive for historical remembrance, and many bearing a considerably peripheral relation to the conflicts themselves. In the end, though, who’s to argue with a good thing, especially when it makes so captivating a story?
A core difficulty in early American existence was simply getting anywhere, let alone to commemorative battlefields. Author Thomas Chambers cites the example of a traveler who “encountered a mere seven bridges but crossed fifty-five ferries on his four-month journey in 1744 from Virginia to Maine.” Cities tended to crop up at convenient locations; battlefields, unhelpfully, did not. Sheer accessibility played a significant role in the emerging cultural significance of some early battlefields. Braddock’s defeat, near Pittsburgh, occurred along the subsequently busy Braddock’s Road, where grisly evidence of the battle could be found for decades. (The Pennsylvania Turnpike might be a modern-day horror, but at least it is not littered with skulls.) Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, meanwhile, lay remote and neglected until it became a convenient, picturesque sight for burgeoning steamship traffic in the 1820s.
Soon after this rise in technological accessibility, Fort Ticonderoga and other Hudson River sites began to benefit considerably from the rise of a new spirit of Romantic tourism. The Hudson figured prominently in the nascent domestic reckoning of the European Grand Tour. Here, scenery, rendered vivid in works by the Hudson River school of artists and described in newly emerging guidebooks, seemed to trump history as an active draw, yet the past was rarely far from nature in descriptions of the merits of these trips. As Chambers writes of Thomas Cole’s “Essay on American Scenery” (1835), “America’s wild and unsettled scenery provoked more than reflections upon a specific castle’s legend or an associated poem. Surrounded by untrammeled mountains and ancient forests, ‘the consequent associations are of God, the Creator; they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things.’ ”
“American scenery,” Chambers adds, “struck the perfect balance between historical associations and unspoiled wilderness; it provided a source of national pride while simultaneously conforming to British ideals of the picturesque.”
Ticonderoga’s Romantic role was accentuated by the fact that the fort itself was a collapsing ruin, and scattered aged veterans added to the location’s impressionistic appeal. Nathaniel Hawthorne, upon visiting in 1835, was irritated by his youthful West Point guide; rather, he
should have been glad of a hoary veteran to totter by my side, and tell me, perhaps, of the French garrisons and their Indian allies, of Abercrombie, Lord Howe, and Amherst; of Ethan Allen’s triumph and Saint Clair’s surrender. The old soldier and the old fortress would be emblems of each other.
This type of yearning, no doubt, provided an opportunity for distinctively American con men: A notably grizzled Ticonderoga “veteran” in the 1830s, Isaac Rice, was a complete fake.
Another, very different sort of tour—taken by the Marquis de Lafayette upon his return to the United States in 1824—proved a significant reminder of the lag in American attention to the country’s formative history. Lafayette’s circuit spanned much of the breadth of the Eastern seaboard, with multiple battlefield stops. Along the way, he encountered exceedingly few permanent markers of the War of Independence. In point of fact, besides the “pyramid which indicates the place where the first martyrs of liberty fell, and now repose” at Lexington, only Bunker Hill and Yorktown featured completed battlefield monuments which Lafayette could visit during his trip. That one of the revolution’s greatest military heroes encountered so few monuments in any state of completion is surprising. And that one of these monuments was inconspicuous, another wooden, and the third temporary, reveals the relatively weak American interest in erecting permanent monuments to the places where independence was won.
Lafayette’s visit set off some measure of catching-up. He participated in several cornerstone-layings and subscribed to monument funds. Progress often promptly stalled after these auspicious starts, however. And while not all monuments advanced as glacially as, say, the Brooklyn Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument—fundraising began in 1802 but construction didn’t start until 1844, and it wasn’t complete until 1908!—Chambers calculates the average number of years required to complete a monument prior to 1861 as 31.
Here, again, battlefields benefited from another rising tide in society—that of the first landmark cemeteries, such as Mount Auburn in Boston and Greenwood in Brooklyn. These, Chamber suggests, provided a ready model of how death might be treated monumentally, and paved the way toward combat commemoration.
A turn to the South offers another informative study on how a new force—politics—came to aid the cause of battlefield preservation. Here, battlefields were remote even by rural standards, and local scenery rarely offered any attraction from which battlefields could benefit: Affluent Southerners were in the habit of traveling North for pleasure. Several battlefields had returned, in considerable part, to farming uses; or, if they had once been farmland, they had since become overgrown. As sectional hostilities began to flare, however, so did interest in local battlefields.
In 1850, William Gilmore Simms published an important essay, “Summer Travel in the South,” that announced the discovery of new historic destinations in the American South. After a summer of cholera outbreaks and “abolition mania” in the North, “patriotic” Southerners declined to spend “time and money among a people whose daily labor seems to be addressed to the neighborly desire of defaming our character and destroying our institutions.”
Suddenly, monuments began to spring up across the South—at Cowpens, Kings Mountain, Moore’s Creek, and Waxhaws. The dedication at Kings Mountain featured an invocation of revolutionary liberties above union: “This union, glorious and blessed as it has been, and is—is not the holiest of holies.” An orator at the Cowpens battlefield dedication cited “the black and threatening cloud which darkens our northern horizon.” Efforts to honor specifically local contributions to victory grew, and in 1859, the cornerstone was laid for a monument to Virginia soldiers at Yorktown.
Some similar efforts arose in the North. A meeting to begin construction of a monument at Saratoga in 1856 declared that “our love of the union may be strengthened by being reminded of the sacrifices made to achieve our independence.” Stephen A. Douglas drew a similarly unitary message during his 1860 presidential campaign. While speaking to a Vermont rally, he stated, “The glories of Bunker Hill, of Bennington, of Kings Bridge [sic], of Eutaw Springs, of Yorktown are our glories. We will have no dissolution!”
Ultimately, we did not have dissolution, but we do have countless monuments. By the outbreak of the Civil War, the country had achieved, through a series of varying societal impulses, a culture of commemoration and battlefield visitation that might be familiar to today’s visitor. Chambers cites a 2010 figure that more than 8.5 million people visited the 22 battlefields run by the National Park Service that year. If you’re making a trip to any of these venerable sites, take a moment to recall the long period, experienced at most battlefields, when you wouldn’t have found any monuments, any visitors’ center, or any hotel—and certainly no one who would be counting attendees.
Anthony Paletta is a writer in Brooklyn.